By Brian Walker
"Strong coffee in great quantities revives me. It occasions a warmth, a singular consumption in me, a pain that is not without pleasure. I would rather suffer than feel nothing."
– Napoleon Bonaparte.
Says a lot about the little general's walkabout around Europe, doesn't it?
Coffee, that great little pleasure with the special moments of our daily life, a pleasure we are generally loath to do without. It has conquered the entire world, particularly the Western hemisphere. The most popular drink in the world represents one of the principal commodities of international trade. Directly or indirectly the economies of Brazil and Colombia depend on coffee.
The success of coffee is a relatively recent phenomenon considering this beverage was brought to Europe from Arabia just four centuries ago and did not become a fundamental part of our culture until 100 years later.
Next to wine, of course, coffee is considered the most Italian of all beverages. Many consider Espresso to be the only way to savour all the intricate flavours present in a good creamy blend of dense elixir that brings out all the energy and character of coffee. Contrary to popular belief "espresso" does not mean "quick," but rather "extract" or "concentrated."
Obscured by the mists of time one ancient legend tells how Archangel Gabriel brought the prophet Mohammed a black beverage that endowed him with enough strength to "unsaddle 40 horsemen and satisfy 40 women." Consider it a good thing that the nightclubs in Whistler only sell beer, wine and spirits.
In other tales, the coffee plant appears miraculously after a sudden supernatural manifestation. Somewhere in a distant monastery in Yemen, not unlike the office of Pique in Function Junction, monks noticed that certain shrubs made some of the shepherds’ goats nervous and restless. After roasting the seeds of these berries the brothers prepared a black beverage that restored vigor and warded off sleep. Very useful during Wednesday evening production sessions or nocturnal prayer vigils.
The first coffee drinkers were from the Abyssinian region of Kaffa, in Ethiopia, which could be the source of modern word "coffee," but some believe it comes from the Turkish "kahvè" or the Arab word "qahwa" which mean "stimulant" or "vigorous."
The first "kahveh-kanes" or coffee houses in Constantinople date back to the 16th century. The success of coffee is due to iron-clad religious principles laid out in the Koran which forbade alcoholic beverages. What would Whistler Food and Beverage Association President Dale Schweighardt have to say about that? Coffee was therefore a substitute for wine and beer and even used in certain religious ceremonies.
Sixteenth century European travellers introduced coffee to the West before Venetian merchants began importing it. Initially it was used as a medicine by physicians and surgeons before gaining wider acceptance as a pleasantly refreshing beverage.
Austria's introduction to coffee was set in 1683 when the Turks hastily abandoned their siege of the capital, leaving sacks and sacks of coffee beans behind. An instant rage, the first Viennese café, "The Blue Bottle," was opened the very same year near the cathedral.
The court of Louis XVI was introduced to coffee by the ambassador of the Ottoman empire and from there it spread through the French aristocracy.
Over the course of the 17th century coffee reached London and Germany, where it had a hard time winning followers away from beer. The image of Germans enthusiastically clinking tiny white porcelain cups together is a tough one to conjure. Holland also began trading in coffee and soon it spread throughout Europe.
The end of the 16th century saw the coffee trade as a well established, precisely run business. The Venetians imported what the Arabs produced. The Microsoft of their day, Arabs ensured that no coffee ever grew on foreign infidel soil by boiling beans before export.
Legend again has it that a future coffee hall of famer and Indian pilgrim to Mecca named Baba Budan smuggled fertile beans into India by hiding them in the folds of his clothes, but history tells us that the Dutch pilfered a coffee plant during a raid on the Yemeni coast. In no time Java, the Dutch East Indies, Ceylon and Guyana were covered with plantations and by 1700 the Dutch set the price of coffee on the world market.
The Flemish were the first to scientifically study the coffee plant and make the invaluable Rubiaceae reproduce in a botanical garden. A French officer with a single plant from King Jardin du Roi's garden transplanted it after a gruelling sea voyage in Martinique, where it eventually generated the entire American coffee crop. By the end of the 1700s French coffee coming from the Indian Ocean colonies broke the Dutch monopoly.
Coffee's foster home though is Brazil. Thanks to coffee berries introduced in 1727, Brazil by the 1900s was able to become the world's major producer of coffee, and still is. Thanks to the English coffee reached Jamaica in 1730 and India a little later. The cultivation of "green gold" beans then began in Venezuela and Colombia. Colombia is currently the world's second largest producer of coffee with its "Sauve" coffee being considered the best in the world.
In the future United States, coffee was proclaimed the national beverage at the "Boston Tea Party" of 1773 when colonists dressed as Indians threw a British cargo of tea overboard. It was a major episode that led up to the American Revolution and eventual independence. Coffee usurped tea to become the patriots’ battle brew.
Linked to the phenomenon of colonialism coffee, which could not be grown in the chilly climes of the Old Continent, was perfectly suited overseas and not adversely affected by long voyages. The 18th and 19th centuries saw Europeans sitting down with a good cup of coffee to discuss ideas and opinions. Its stimulating effect contributed to the lively, often heated debates associated with intellectualism and creativity.
Armed with endless cups of piping hot coffee Smart Alecs and historical figures would gather in cafés all over Europe to lay the thoughts and ideas that at times were the origins of war and revolution. In the evolution of social behaviour one must not overlook the important role played by cafés in the significant reduction of alcoholic beverages consumed. Italian "coffee shops" of the 19th century served as hot beds to nourish patriotic favours, important literary talents and schools of thought.
Modern coffee bars have replaced the last remaining cafés that have lost their special atmosphere and are no longer cultural centres. Now a cup of coffee, produced by a fast-moving barista who dextrously operates an enormous gleaming machine at full steam while systematically lining up saucers and spoons, is consumed practically on the run. All in the name of modern efficiency.
The coffee plant has 60 species, of which 12 are cultivated for production. An evergreen shrub, its height for practical reasons is generally restricted to two or three metres.
The most important phase of coffee processing is its roasting, which is done outside the country of origin. Temperatures of between 200 and 230 C. set off a series of chemical and physical changes in the bean that unleash characteristic aromatic properties.
Blends of different kinds of coffee beans are used to create full rich flavour and aroma not obtainable by a single variety of coffee other than the famous Jamaican Blue Mountain. Tasting expert sommeliers are entrusted to create a full balanced blend.
Coffee's invigorating properties are due to an alkaloid that stimulates cardiac activity and acts on the nervous system, called caffeine. It increases physical endurance by promoting the production of fatty acids that are used by the body as an immediate source of energy. Coffee's effect on the digestive system stimulates the secretion of saliva and hydrochloric acid. A cup of Joe also helps with headaches by diminishing the flow of blood to the head, hence Europe's problems with Napoleon.
In order to make good coffee one must properly store the blend itself. The majority of coffees on the market have already been roasted and ground. Once opened they should be put into an air tight container. To guarantee freshness grind just what you need for individual pots. Never use detergents to wash coffee makers. Just rinse them after use so that they become seasoned by the coffee.
Dense, creamy, aromatic cups of coffee are only made by professional "espresso" machines. The right consistency of grind is crucial. The coffee's flavour depends on this procedure, therefore an adjustable grinder is essential. The goodness of coffee depends on the machine, the blend, the grinder, the type of water and last but not least how the coffee machine is maintained.
Wes McIntyre of "Wespresso" services machines throughout the valley and knows how a machine's various functions can translate into on-the-job performance. He advises that without a proper daily maintenance program even the best machines can fail to deliver the holy grail.
A coffee tasting featuring premier suppliers will fittingly take place next Sunday, Nov. 15 at the conclusion of Cornucopia, Whistler's fabulous food and wine festival. Starting at High Noon at Benny's Bagels, coffee lovers will be able to sample the best blends while a Barista Shoot Out is judged by prominent Whistler restaurateurs. Establishments can enter their best Barista into the timed event by calling 938-1308.